The House held a series of votes late Thursday that indicates possible support for a new ground war in Iraq, should that step become necessary to stop a rising terrorist threat in that country.
The rise of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has raised new questions about whether the U.S. will have to put “boots on the ground” in Iraq again. On Thursday, President Barack Obama said he was sending 300 Special Operations troops to help train the Iraqi military in its fight against ISIS, but stressed that “American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again.”
Later in the day, Democrats tried to capitalize on that statement by amending a Defense Department spending bill for fiscal year 2015, to formally prevent the use of ground troops in Iraq. But each one of their amendments failed, a sign that most in the House want to leave open the option of ground troops.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) lead the effort on behalf of Democrats to shut down all possibility of sending the military back to Iraq. Her first amendment would have allowed Obama to send limited forces to Iraq to help with training or protect the U.S. embassy there, but would have blocked all funding for ground troops.
“This amendment would not allow funding for combat operations,” she said. “This is a sectarian war with long-standing roots that were flamed unfortunately when we invaded Iraq in 2003.
“Any lasting solution must be political and take into account respect for the entire Iraqi population.”
But her language was opposed by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), who said Congress should not be eliminating options for using force in Iraq at this point.
“This amendment, in my judgment, goes too far in its attempts to tie the U.S. government’s hands, i.e. the commander in chief’s hands, in navigating a complicated situation we face related to threats emanating from Iraq,” he said.
In a late vote, the House agreed with Frelinghuysen, and rejected Lee’s amendment in a 165-250 vote. Only 23 Republicans sided with Lee, while 44 Democrats voted against her proposal.
Lee then offered a proposal to prohibit funds from being used to implement the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq. Lee said President Obama has declared the war to be over in Iraq, and that this lingering authorization is no longer needed.
But Frelinghuysen again spoke against her idea, and said the Defense Department spending bill had no money for Iraq operations. “This amendment is an amendment in search of a problem, a problem that doesn’t exist,” he said.
He also argued that the amendment was an attempt to show the U.S. has “washed its hands of Iraq.” In another late vote, Lee’s proposal failed 182-231, and 35 Democrats voted against it.
Lee also proposed language to stop any funds from being used to implement the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which gives the president the authority to use troops to fight terrorists. But this idea also failed, in a 157-260 vote that saw 52 Democrats in opposition.
In addition to these votes, the House also made clear its opposition to Obama’s decision to release five Guantanamo Bay detainees in exchange for the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) offered an amendment preventing any more releases from Guantanamo for one year, giving Congress time to assess the prisoner swap.
Cotton’s language passed 230-184, with the help of 12 Democrats.
A contrary proposal from Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) would have prevented the U.S. from holding any detainees in Guantanamo for more than 15 years. It was defeated in a voice vote.
The House was on track to pass the huge spending bill on Friday. It would spend $491 billion in fiscal year 2015 on discretionary DOD programs, and $79.4 billion in ongoing war efforts.